At the Cross­roads

Will Pres­i­dent Obama’s sec­ond term aim to ease the strained US-Pak­istan re­la­tion­ship or will it suf­fer even greater set­backs?

Southasia - - Cover story - By S. M. Hali

Pak­istan suf­fered from an un­easy re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Obama dur­ing his first term. To be­gin with, Obama re­neged on his prom­ise made dur­ing the pre­elec­tion cam­paign to help re­solve the Kash­mir is­sue. The rapid ac­cel­er­a­tion in drone strikes within Pak­istan, the Ray­mond Davis af­fair, the Ab­bot­tabad raid fol­lowed by the NATO at­tack on a Pak­istan Army check post at Salala, fur­ther soured re­la­tions be­tween the erst­while al­lies. Drone at­tacks have been a bone of con­tention be­tween Pak­istan and the US. The col­lat­eral dam­age of in­no­cent civil­ians as a re­sult of in­ces­sant drone at­tacks has caused pub­lic out­rage in Pak­istan.

• The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in­sists that the drone at­tacks have re­ceived tacit ap­proval of the Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties but Pak­istan ve­he­mently de­nies the im­pli­ca­tion. The sor­did af­fair of CIA op­er­a­tive Ray­mond Davis kill- ing two Pak­ista­nis in broad day­light brought re­la­tions be­tween Is­lam­abad and Washington to an all time low. Pres­i­dent Obama jumped into the fray, wrongly in­sist­ing that the ap­pre­hended spook was a US diplo­mat and as such en­joyed im­mu­nity.

While pub­lic anger mounted, the in­fa­mous Ab­bot­tabad raid on May 02, 2011 dif­fused the Ray­mond Davis af­fair. Pak­istani armed forces were caught nap­ping when US Navy SEALs ex­e­cuted a clan­des­tine raid on a res­i­dence in the mil­i­tary can­ton­ment town of Ab­bot­tabad and al­legedly as­sas­si­nated Osama bin Laden. The mat­ter did not end there but al­le­ga­tions were hurled that ei­ther Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties were com­plicit in hid­ing Osama or were com­pletely in­ef­fec­tive. On Novem­ber 26, 2011, an un­pro­voked at­tack on Pak­istan Army’s check post at Salala killing 25 Pak­istani sol­diers wreaked havoc in the bi­lat­eral re­la­tions. Pak­istan closed the ground lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion/ NATO sup­ply routes through Pak­istan and forced the US to va­cate the Shamsi air base in Baluchis­tan that was al­legedly used to launch drone at­tacks. The US re­tal­i­ated by stop­ping pay­ments to Pak­istan, due un­der the head of Coali­tion Sup­port Fund and US aid to Pak­istan.

Obama’s first term strat­egy has been to marginal­ize Pak­istan and give pref­er­ence to In­dia, en­vis­ag­ing a role for the In­dian mil­i­tary in a post-2014 Afghanistan when the bulk of US and in­ter­na­tional forces will de­part from this the­ater of war. Pak­istan is not com­fort­able with such an ar­range­ment, since the pres­ence of In­dian troops in Afghanistan would en­able In­dia to en­cir­cle and choke Pak­istan. There are re­ports of In­dian se­cu­rity agency, RAW’s op­er­a­tives man­ning the four­teen con­sulates and trade mis­sions in Afghanistan along the Du­rand Line, which are al­legedly be­ing used to desta­bi­lize Pak­istan.

Obama’s next four years will mean dif­fer­ently for Pak­istan and the US. A war-weary and eco­nom­i­cally cash strapped US would pre­fer to con­duct a rapid egress from Afghanistan but

would like to avoid the ig­nominy of de­feat. The trust deficit has so wors­ened be­tween the erst­while al­lies that the US ac­cuses Pak­istan of aid­ing and abet­ting the Tal­iban, pro­vid­ing them safe haven in its tribal belt and fa­cil­i­tat­ing their at­tacks on US forces and in­stal­la­tions within Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pak­istan sus­pects that the US has been sup­port­ing an­tiPak­istan el­e­ments, arm­ing and train­ing them to con­duct ter­ror­ist at­tacks so that a bat­tered Pak­istan would be forced to con­duct anti-Tal­iban mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in North Waziris­tan. Pres­i­dent Obama’s in­fa­mous Af-Pak strat­egy is not likely to un­dergo much change, ex­cept that Obama may at­tempt to make a more vi­able endgame in Afghanistan.

How­ever, Pres­i­dent Obama’s re­elec­tion also ush­ers in pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments. Firstly, in all prob­a­bil­ity, an at­tack on Iran would not be con­tem­plated. Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Mitt Rom­ney, who is known to have been col­lud­ing with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Benyamin Ne­tanyahu, would pos­si­bly have been co­erced into launch­ing an at­tack on Iran and plunged the whole re­gion in an­other round of death and ter­ror. Pak­istan would have un­doubt­edly been caught in the midst as it is al­ready fac­ing the reper­cus­sions of the war in Afghanistan. Pres­i­dent Obama will cer­tainly be more wary of start­ing an­other mean­ing­less war.

Many Pak­ista­nis were dis­il­lu­sioned by Pres­i­dent Obama’s first term but heaved a sigh of re­lief that Mitt Rom­ney, who ap­peared more omi­nous, has been de­feated while Barack Obama’s ac­tions vis-à-vis Pak­istan will be pre­dictable. He will be tough and will per­sist with the drone at­tacks try­ing to marginal­ize Pak­istan. An­other devel­op­ment is the sud­den de­par­ture of CIA Di­rec­tor, Gen­eral David Pe­traeus amidst an al­leged se­cret af­fair with his bi­og­ra­pher. Pe­traeus had adopted a tough stand to­wards Pak­istan, per­haps for per­sonal rea­sons. The hero of the US-led war in Iraq was brought to Afghanistan to snatch vic­tory from the jaws of de­feat but failed mis­er­ably. He con­se­quently blamed his fail­ure on Pak­istan’s al­leged sup­port for anti-US Tal­iban. The de­par­ture of David Pe­traeus is likely to pave way per­haps for a more prag­matic CIA Di­rec­tor, which may be ben­e­fi­cial for Pak­istan.

On the other hand, Pak­istan’s own gen­eral elec­tions are a stone’s throw away. Pak­ista­nis of­ten con­flate what’s best for the government and what’s best for the peo­ple. If the new dis­pen­sa­tion in Is­lam­abad com­prises a com­bi­na­tion of Im­ran Khan’s Pak­istan Tehreek-e-In­saf and Nawaz Sharif’s Mus­lim League, then the US will lose the pli­able pro-US Zar­dari group. In such a case, Foggy Bot­tom (US State De­part­ment) will have to mod­ify its stance to­wards marginal­iz­ing Pak­istan. With Gen­eral Kayani also com­plet­ing his ex­tended term in of­fice, the US will seek new part­ners in Is­lam­abad and Rawalpindi (Army GHQ). It will have to forge fresh al­liances and per­haps agree to grant a more op­er­a­tional role to Pak­istani in­ter­locu­tors to bring the Tal­iban to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. If the US at­tempts to ma­nip­u­late Pak­istan’s elec­tions to bring forth its mal­leable and duc­tile al­lies of the past, pub­lic opin­ion in Pak­istan will turn even more hos­tile to­wards the US and it would not be ad­vis­able for Washington to med­dle. What­ever the fu­ture holds, it is an ac­cepted fact that like many times be­fore we are at the cross­roads of his­tory and hard­nosed de­ci­sions will have to be taken, keep­ing Pak­istan’s best in­ter­ests in the fore­ground. May san­ity pre­vail in both Capi­tol Hill and Is­lam­abad.

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